Boo-hoo days behind blind sailing champion

By Julia Proverbs

As a child Paulien Eitjes was sports mad.
She played hockey and basketball to representative level and loved swimming.
But the onset of a rare genetic condition at the age of 9 slowly robbed her of her sight and with it her sporting hopes and dreams.
Or so she thought.
"I spent a lot of time with the'why-me, boo-hoo?' attitude," she said of the early years.
"I did a lot of crying on my bed and that didn't help."
But over the past 10 years the 35-year-old, who has only 4 to 7 per cent of her vision remaining, has turned all that around.
In fact the reigning blind sailing world champion credits her visual impairment with giving her opportunities she would otherwise not have had.
Eitjes, who has two world titles in fleet and match racing, said it was the belief that other people had in her that had kept her going.
She took up sailing eight years ago when the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind held a blind sailing school in Tauranga.
"To be in control of something else is amazing," she said of the sport.
Eitjes is also an accomplished equestrian, having represented New Zealand twice in dressage at the Australian blind equestrian nationals, but sold her horse five years ago to concentrate on sailing.
She now has her sights set on the 2012 Paralympics.
Eitjes was diagnosed with Stargradt's macular dystrophy, which causes blind spots in her vision, 26 years ago. Her sister also has the rare genetic condition.
The gradual deterioration of her sight continued until about three years ago.
"People ask me what I see, but I don't know what they see, so it's hard to describe," said Eitjes, who cannot remember what it is like to have full vision.
"I see shapes ...

I don't usually walk into anything but I don't necessarily know what I'm avoiding.
"I recognise voices, not faces."
Her advice to other visually impaired people is: "Learn to ask for help, and have a go at anything you want to have a go at."
And for those not visually impaired: "Don't flash your lights at us at pedestrian crossings because it doesn't help.
"Don't toot either - we don't know whether it means to look out or go."
But most importantly: "Give us a chance. We're people too."
To donate to Blind Week call 0800 DONATE (366283) or visit the website at

- Bay of Plenty Times

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